"[If] you are a connoisseur of the SRPG genre, then Gungnir will delight you like few other games will."
While the PSVita experiences a dearth of summer releases, its predecessor has the support of many niche developers such as Atlus and XSeeD, releasing some truly remarkable gems this summer that will make the PSP's twilight years all the more memorable once support for the console ceases. One of Atlus' two releases is the latest entry in Sting's Dept. Heaven saga, Gungnir: Inferno of the Demon Lance and the War of Heroes, and the first Sting game to be localized stateside since the PSP port of Knights in the Nightmare.
Gungnir is set in the empire of Gargandia, where Daltanians are the ruling class and lord over the Leonican peasants with an iron fist. While the empire has a republican faction that should hold some political sway, it has largely devolved into a dictatorship, with the emperor being a mere figurehead, and true power lying with Ziyad, his personal adviser. The Leonicans are forced to fight for scraps in the dilapidated slums while the Daltans live in prosperity within the borders of the resource-rich capital.
Where there is oppression, there is resistance, and the resistance army known as Noble Esperanza carry out discrete subterfuge and guerrilla warfare against the empire and its citizens. Protagonist Giulio is a member of this guerrilla force, being the son of its previous leader. The formation of this group was in direct reaction to events such as the Espada Massacre, in which Daltanians marched into the Leonican slums and slaughtered its civilians. Noble Esperanza, however, is badly outmatched and outgunned, and it seems like only a matter of time before the revolution is crushed and all hope lost.
During a raid of a caravan bound for the capital, Giulio and his friends discover that the owners were transporting a young girl by the name of Alissa. They decide to take her back to their home base, but it's not long before the imperial forces arrive to find her. With the bulk of the resistance being absent, Giulio and his friends confront the imperial forces, only to be routed in a devastating defeat. Giulio watches as his friends are murdered, and just as it seems his fate is sealed, a spear falls from the sky and saves him. A mysterious girl calling herself Elise tells him that the Holy Spear Gungnir has chosen him to be its master. With the newfound power of Gungnir, Giulio aids Esperanza in a full campaign against the empire.
Gungnir's story is well-written and concise; no scenes feel truly out-of-place or unnecessary, and at every turn it drives home the message that war is not glorious or honorable, but people killing other people. The story is quite dark and neither side is painted as good or evil, despite all appearances to the contrary at the outset. As the game progresses, the player can choose how Giulio will react to certain situations, causing the flow of the story to change, and determining which ending the player receives once the game is finished. Even the best ending is noticeably melancholic and rather bleak, with just a slight tinge of hope.
The biggest problem with the plot is how it attempts to tell multiple smaller stories while also handling the overarching narrative. While the outstanding conflict of the story – the war between Esperanza and Gargandia – is handled beautifully, many of the more ancillary plot threads offer either no resolution, or are resolved so abruptly that I was left scratching my head. While this may be a setup for future entries of the Dept. Heaven series, I couldn't help but think there was something missing. Had the story focused solely on the Daltanian/Leonican conflict, it would have been much more well-rounded overall.
Gugnir's graphics are very well-done; the battlefield and environments are in 3D, while the characters are drawn as detailed sprites – after so many developers have made the jump to 3D and never looked back, it's nice to see that some still stick to what they do best and pump out some impressive spritework. The character designs are attractive and excellently drawn. Don't let the animated opening fool you; the character artwork is phenomenal, and the characters actually dress the part – no hardened mercenaries that dress like prostitutes in this game! The music composition is similarly excellent, with some of the best music I've heard in a JRPG in the past few years. There's no voice acting to be found in the game, which is fine; the nature of the story and characters lend themselves well to a text-only experience, and I'd rather have no voices than ones that might potentially damage the story and immersion.
Gungnir's gameplay is a straight turn-based SRPG affair, with battles taking place on grid-based fields. However, even SRPG veterans will weep at the absolutely merciless skirmishes Gungnir throws at them; after it slowly eases the player into its mechanics, it swiftly pushes him into the deep side regardless of whether or not the he is ready. If you play Gungnir, prepare to be challenged and have your strategic mind be brought to its knees. I played on the "Advanced Mode," the harder of two modes, at first, and I barely made it through the game. Upon completion, a third difficulty, Nightmare Mode, is introduced, and even I didn't have the stomach to attempt it.
Gungnir's battles play out with each enemy having an individual wait counter that counts down to their turn, while the player's side has only one wait counter counting down to his turn. During each player turn, he can allow one of his units to move and act, and then wait for his next turn. The player's units also have their own counters, and their counters must be at zero to move or take action when the player's turn comes up. If their counters are at anything other than zero, moving or acting decreases their maximum HP for that battle. This means that enemies almost always have the advantage, but not so much that it becomes unfair. Battlefields often become very busy, with every single factor being an important consideration during a player's turn. Character placement is incredibly important, as each weapon has different properties that can be stymied by a wall or a well-placed enemy, and properly positioned characters can assist others to enhance their attacks two- or even threefold. Environmental factors such as ballistae, cannons, and other dangers can turn a battle around very quickly. When units move, they also accrue Tactics Points (TP) for their side. TP is used in battle for everything that isn't moving or attacking. Actions such as picking up treasure and activating special abilities requires TP. Players can also use TP to make their turn come up instantly, and each side's TP maximum can be increased by capturing home points on the battlefield. Skirmishes also have an auto-fail condition once a certain amount of time passes (which is determined at the start of each battle); generally the amount of time given is very generous, but this means that players must play efficiently in order to triumph.
Between battles, players can recruit or hire new units, buy and change equipment, and enhance weapons. Every modification to the player's active lineup, no matter how small, is very much a balance between risk and reward, and even the smallest tip of the scale could determine Giulio's fate in combat. Each item has a different weight value, and each character can only hold so much weight before they can't take on any more items – is it better to equip the heavy armor (that might also reduce movement range) or lighter armor with the addition of a healing item? Characters also gain mastery of their weapons the more they use them, gaining new attacks and increased attack damage as their skill with their currently equipped armament – so when new equipment is available, players must determine if the weapon they're currently using is worth ditching for the potential
of a stronger weapon down the line. Weapons themselves can be upgraded with gems that are either found on the battlefield or refined from unneeded items, but upgrades aren't always successful, which makes this yet another facet of the game that requires careful planning.
Because of the linear nature of the game and the many factors that influence gameplay, character progression, and combat, it is very possible that players can end up in a no-win situation. It is possible to grind for levels in some battles, but it is very tedious and not often doable, so players must keep multiple saves just to make sure they don't play themselves into a corner later on and have to restart the game from scratch. A training mode that allows more casual players to level up and bulldoze past particularly difficult battles would have gone a long way in helping the game's playability. While Sting has succeeded in crafting an incredible SRPG, it unfortunately falls victim to its own complexity and difficulty, and can be too punishing for players who just want to sit back and let the story come to them without too much hassle.
Regardless, Gungnir is a well-made game in nearly every aspect. Its aesthetic qualities are pleasing, its gameplay is solid and well-built, and its story is interesting and very well written. While some may be turned off by the rather steep difficulty, SRPG enthusiasts will be enthralled by the story and challenged by the gameplay. If you're a more casual RPG player, you might want to give Gungnir a pass, but if you are a connoisseur of the SRPG genre, then Gungnir will delight you like few other games will.